(CNN) - Ford has unveiled a completely new version of the Explorer SUV, a model that helped fuel the SUV craze when it was first introduced in the 1990s. It's still one of the company's most popular products and will be even more important to Ford now that the automaker has announced it is dropping nearly all car models from its North American lineup in favor of SUVs, crossovers and trucks.
Almost 8 million Explorers have been sold and Ford bills it as the "best-selling SUV of all time." A famous rollover-related recall scandal in the early 2000s — fatal crashes, blamed on faulty Firestone tires, led to more stringent recall regulations — did little to dampen enthusiasm for the model over the long term. The Explorer is now entering its sixth generation.
Part of the Explorer's success is that it appeals to an amazingly broad swath of customers covering a wide range of ages and social classes. Shoppers can choose from a base model Explorer for a little over $30,000 or add options to a top-of-the-line Ford Explorer Platinum, creating what is essentially a luxury SUV with a price tag well over $60,000. Prices for the new Explorer will be only about $400 higher, Ford has said.
At a glance, the new Explorer might not look that different from the one you see on the streets now, but it's actually a completely different vehicle. Most noticeable is a sleeker body style with a more sloped roofline, a design that, Ford executives say, was inspired by yachts.
"The Explorer has been really successful for us and so we didn't want to change the experience dramatically, but we did want to update it, we wanted to modernize it, we wanted to change the presence," said Cristina Aquino, Ford's large utility marketing manager.
The Explorer you can buy today is based on front-wheel-drive engineering that it shares with the Ford Taurus. The new Explorer returns to rear-wheel-drive engineering as was once traditional for SUVs. The Explorer is still available with all-wheel-drive, of course, but now more of the power goes to the rear wheels, which is better for towing.
This new Explorer will also be better off-road than the current model, according to Ford. The front wheels are closer to the front bumper, which improves climbing ability and it's also almost an inch higher off the ground.
The SUV's "Terrain Management System," which can be set using a knob in the center console area, has up to seven different modes including deep snow and sand, slippery, sport and an "eco" mode for fuel-efficient driving. The different modes change how power is delivered to the wheels among other things.
A 10-inch touchscreen is available as an option. It's mounted vertically and sticks up from the center of the dashboard. This design makes it look like a separate piece clipped to the dashboard but it keeps the screen up near eye level. A more typical 8-inch screen mounted sideways is standard. Ford made both designs available, Aquino said, because less tech-savvy buyers might not be comfortable with something resembling an iPad being so prominent in their vehicle.
Also available is a new active parking system that, like technology in Tesla models and some other luxury cars, can park the vehicle entirely on its own. Sensors scan for a space and, once one is found, the driver needs only to put the SUV in reverse, then hold a finger down on a button and the Explorer will park itself handling the brakes, accelerator and steering on its own. The system works for both parallel and back-in spaces.
Among the available engine options are a 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder and turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 in higher-end models. There will also be a hybrid Explorer for the first time. The new Explorer will be built in Chicago and is expected to go on sale this summer.
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